When Gene McCarthy Said Journalism Was Becoming the New Religion

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Illustration by James Yang.

By Jack Limpert

Many of this week’s Joe McGinniss obituaries focused on his great book, The Selling of the President 1968, and that brought up the role that Senator Eugene McCarthy played in the politics of that eventful year. In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that I had worked with McCarthy in 1976 on a Washingtonian “Political Bestiary” article; in 1989 he also wrote a Washingtonian piece about the press in which he criticized reporters such at Mort Kondracke and Sam Donaldson for refusing to make public their speaking fees and other sources of income.

The title of McCarthy’s piece was “Let Us Prey.” The deck: “Why Journalism Is Becoming the New Religion, Complete With Inquisitions and Infallibility.” These excerpts are a reminder that Gene McCarthy was a professor at the College of St. Thomas, a Catholic college, before he was a politician:

“German philosopher Oswald Spengler said that there are only two estates—the civil and the religious—operating in a society at any given time. According to Spengler, when one estate loses power, that power is assumed by the other estate or by another institution.

“In America, the civil authority—the state—is holding its position. Religion, the First Estate, is losing ground. The media, traditionally the Fourth Estate, are dangerously close to becoming the new religion.

“The most significant evidence of change is that while church members are challenging the special knowledge of the clergy, journalists continue to pronounce absolute judgment on the most complex social, political, and moral issues. Editors, columnists, TV commentators, anchorspersons—all stop just short of claiming ‘grace in office.’

“The press has its own form of the dreaded Index—the Catholic Church’s official list of prohibited and restricted books—according to which it censors news and gives the public only what stories it has decided they should be told. It decides when someone is fair game, when it is open season on someone’s private life.

“Media power now is acknowledged as having moved beyond the Index to the Inquisition, whereby the media decide who is to be sustained, who is to be elevated, who is to be rejected, who is to live and die in the public eye. On the positive side, the process is not unlike the Catholic Church’s beatification and canonization; on the negative side, it approaches censorship, interdiction, and condemnation.

“If the media continue to assume the powers and privileges traditionally associated with religion, they must be prepared to demonstrate the purity, detachment, and moral superiority of their agents and officials, as has always been demanded of those in the First Estate.

“In some cultures and religions, detachment is demonstrated by vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience; in others, by living on the edge of volcanoes, walking on hot coals, or handling snakes. Refusing honoraria and making public their sources of income seem a small price for the media to pay to continue their role as keepers of the faith.”

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